By Matt Phillion
We’ve all heard the stories: A patient comes down with COVID-19 and recovers, but not completely. Lingering symptoms plague them long after the virus itself is gone. It’s believed that this condition, known as long-haul COVID-19, is becoming a serious problem affecting millions of Americans, and the medical community is still trying to gain insight into the how and why. The CDC recently announced that it is working on guidelines for treating COVID-19 long-haulers who develop chronic illness.
Ashok Gupta, an expert on treating chronic illness through neuroplasticity principles, has been researching long-haul COVID-19 and how it can be treated through brain retraining. “There’s a number of different hypotheses on long-haul COVID,” he says.
Some theories believe that it’s excess mass cell activation, or an allergy causing cells to react. Others posit the virus is hiding out in the brain or body, waiting for an opportunity to create further issues. Still others believe the condition reflects long-term damage to the lungs. Gupta hypothesizes that it is due to a conditioned response.
“We are here because our nervous system and immune system has evolved to survive,” says Gupta. “We are survival machines.”
When we encounter an illness that is life threatening as far as the brain is concerned—and, in the case of COVID-19, also introduces significant stress, anxiety, and social isolation on top of physical illness—it takes longer for the immune system to recover, and Gupta says this plays into the long-term effects demonstrated by long-haulers.
“If the brain makes the decisions that this is potentially life threatening and we get to the stage where we’re overcoming it, a legacy is left in the brain that keeps over-responding to anything that reminds us of the virus,” says Gupta.
Even if we’ve fought off the virus, Gupta explains, the brain will react in a precautionary way to stimuli that resemble it. “The brain gets stuck in that overprotective response,” he says. “It keeps stimulating our nervous system and our immune system just in case the virus may still be present.”
This isn’t a concept unique to long-haul COVID-19, Gupta notes. He points out that the majority of flu symptoms, for example, are caused by the immune system responding to the virus, not the virus itself. Many patients develop chronic fatigue syndrome, sometimes known as “ME” (myalgic encephalomyelitis), after experiencing the flu, a stomach bug, or respiratory illness, he says.
“It’s a trigger of a form of chronic fatigue status—that’s a hypothesis,” says Gupta. He describes the phenomenon of long-haul COVID-19 as “a hypersensitive brain which thinks we’re still in danger.”
What is neuroplasticity and how can it help?
Gupta has been working with patients for two decades with a brain retraining program using neuroplasticity, or “limbic retraining.”
“Essentially, we believe that through neural rewiring, we can persuade the brain to get over the response—to be very clear, we’re not saying it is psychological in any way,” he says. “It’s accessing the unconscious brain.”
His team worked successfully with a 56-year-old male with long-haul COVID-19 recently, who prior to contracting COVID-19 in March 2020 was running half-marathons and cycling, but post-COVID-19 struggled to get off the sofa for months.
“We train the patient to be able to recognize those subtle unconscious danger signals on the periphery of consciousness,” says Gupta. “They recognize those signals and have a specialized, seven-step process to send safety signals to the prefrontal cortex down to the limbic system and insula.”
This, coupled with supportive techniques and the natural hallmarks of good health such as sleep and diet, help prepare the patient to respond to perceived threats that might trigger the response anew.
“The natural state of our brain is to default to protection,” Gupta says. “The brain prioritizes survival and passing on our genes to the next generation over any other impulse. It cares more about that than you feeling healthy and well! Protective responses are evolutionary and are the right thing for the brain to do—it’s survival.”
Gupta talks about the difference between pressure and stress, and the impact that stress has on our overall health, not just in terms of long-haul COVID-19 but general wellness. “With pressure, I can have a deadline and I respond to that pressure without the negative aspects of stress,” he says. “But then that pushes into stress and fear, and compromises our health.”
The mystery of survival instincts
Who will experience long-haul COVID-19 remains an unpredictable mystery, Gupta says. Most of the patients he has treated with neuroplasticity techniques came down with COVID-19 but did not require hospitalization.
“They aren’t the severest cases. Is there a correlation? We haven’t seen a correlation yet,” he says.
The treated patients range in severity, from housebound to still working, as well as in age, including patients in their 20s. “I would say the majority had to come off work and had to pace themselves,” says Gupta.
Major symptoms his patients have experienced are extreme exhaustion, post-exertional malaise, headaches, breathlessness, and sometimes stomach or gastrointestinal challenges. “It’s unique to each patient,” says Gupta.
The brain reaction is almost like muscle memory, in a way. Gupta identifies this as immune memory, or a stress signature.
“We see this demonstrated in hospitals every day,” he says. “Our immune systems are overreacting to COVID, causing a cytokine storm—an extreme immune reaction. That’s why a lot of drug therapies are trying to modulate the cytokine storm. In the same way, even after the original virus may have been removed from the body, the immune system continues to over-respond.“
The long-term prognosis of long-haul COVID-19
As with many ailments, it’s better if you identify long-haul COVID-19 early, says Gupta.
“If you leave it for too long, it can become more deeply entrenched in the brain,” he says. “The brain has a memory of health and a memory of defensiveness. The longer you have a condition, the memory of health becomes erased or difficult to experience, so the brain gets into a new state and forgets its original homeostasis.”
Will new strains or variants of COVID-19 also involve a long-haul illness? “It’s far too early to tell,” says Gupta. “It’s always possible a new variant could come along that would not cause long-haul COVID, or it could be more likely to do so. We believe these things could be triggered by a whole host of conditions.”
If patients seek out neuroplasticity treatment, Gupta makes sure that they are not feeling isolated and that they work together with a like-minded community on regaining health.
“Many people will say it’s in their head,” says Gupta. “But it’s in the unconscious brain.”
He compares it to phantom limb syndrome, often seen in amputees and war veterans. “You wouldn’t say that [condition is] psychological. It’s an illness. You train the brain to know that the limb no longer exists,” he says.
This training is a new way of treating chronic illnesses via the brain, Gupta says. “We are reprogramming the software, not the hardware,” he says. “Mainstream medicine focuses on when our hardware goes wrong, but many illnesses are software based. We need to be reprogrammed so we can bring the body back to homeostasis.”
The challenge is that medicine often focuses on measurements, and although we can measure hormones, enzymes, and physical changes, the brain is still a “black box,” Gupta says.
“I believe in 20 or 30 years we’ll have a full map of the brain,” he says. “Until that happens, we have to use these brain training techniques, creating neural pathways that allow the brain to reboot and reset.”
Matt Phillion is a freelance writer covering healthcare, cybersecurity, and more. He can be reached at email@example.com.